I’ve mentioned this film a few times before in some of my other articles. Maybe once or twice. Primarily because it’s based on a short film that I like a lot. So when I got the suggestion to make reviews on older films, I thought I’d start it of with this one.
Twelve Monkeys (1995) is a film directed by Terry Gilliam, a former member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. It stars Bruce Willis (Die Hard series, Unbreakable) and Madeleine Stowe (We Were Soldiers, Revenge) in the lead roles. They’re accompanied by Brad Pitt (Fight Club, Troy) and Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, All the Money in the World) in supporting, yet equally vital roles.
Sometime in 1996, a group called the Twelve Monkeys allegedly releases a viral plague that wipes out 99% of the human population, which forces the remaining survivors to retreat into underground bunkers. The film follows James Cole (Willis), a prisoner from the year 2035 who is chosen to be sent back in time to the year the virus first spread with the goal of collecting a pure form of the virus, which is needed to develop a cure. But when Cole is sent back to the wrong time, he goes through the grueling task of jumping forward and backwards in time all to find the truth of the fabled Twelve Monkeys.
The plot of Twelve Monkeys, as many would tell you, is a lengthy, convoluted build-up to a twist that wouldn’t surprise a whole lot of modern audiences. The premise itself doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense and you gotta have a little suspension of disbelief to really take it in.
That being said, I still think the film is one of the best in the genre. I’ve seen a good number of films akin to this one, a lot of which were inspired by Twelve Monkeys. And they’ve always been this is winding road that always leads to a mind-boggling twist that owes itself to a while lots of questions and plot holes. It’s simply a mainstay of the casual loop sub-genre of sci-fi, and its a large part of what makes them a whole lot of fun in the first place.
Much newer films like Primer (2004), Triangle (2009), and Looper (2012) are subject to these tropes and, in my opinion, present them in a far more convoluted way than Twelve Monkeys. Therefore, its plot, despite its tendency for complexity, is relatively easy-to-follow with occasional use of exposition that still leaves room for a lot of visual storytelling. And let me just say that it’s telling a damn good story.
When this film came out, Bruce Willis was fresh out of this third Die Hard movie. So it must’ve been refreshing to see him in a more emotional role again. Willis presents his capacity as an actor full-on in the role of convict-turned-time-traveler James Cole. As the character, he embodies traits of desperation and occasional madness, while shifting between bouts of confusion, vulnerability, and determination. These are traits that we don’t usually associate with the actor’s more famous roles like John McClain or Butch Coolidge. Cole is a man lost in time who struggles with a fate that knows he cannot change, and Willis portrays that wonderfully.
Pitt steals the show in this one as crazed revolutionary Jeffery Giones, especially in his earlier scenes in the mental institution. This was one of the roles that sent the actor skyrocketing to the ranks of an A-lister, and it’s not hard to see why. His manic monologues and continuous bursts of madness coupled with the actor’s innate charisma make you just love his character all the more. It’s the same kind of insane existential ramblings Tyler Durden presented to us in Fight Club (1999) combined with the erratic determination of Det. David Mills at the end of Se7en (1995). It’s both those things but cranked up to 11.
BREAKDOWN AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS
SPOILERS FOR THE FILM START HERE
Twelve Monkeys is heavily inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). The film follows many of La Jetée’s plot beats, including its twist, and even lifts most of its premise from it. You could even go as far to say that Twelve Monkeys is a remake of La Jetée and you wouldn’t be totally wrong.
Unlike La Jetée, however, Twelve Monkeys makes use of it being a full-length film by breaking itself into multiple chapters. If you watch the film again, you will notice that the narrative is neatly portioned into three parts that don’t exactly fall into the category of “acts”. Let’s run through each chapter very quickly:
1.) Cole is first sent to 1990 to retrieve the virus but is admitted to a mental institution and must escape with the help of Jeffery. He’s captured, but rescued. 2.) Cole is finally sent to 1996, where he confronts Jeffery who he learned is the founder of the Twelve Monkeys, but his kidnapping of Dr. Railly made him a fugitive of the law. He is again rescued moments before capture. 3.) Cole returns to 1996 and reunites with Dr. Railly who joins him in an attempt to escape the plague. But their plans are halted when they discover that the plague was not caused by the Twelve Monkeys but by a lab assistant who they must now stop. Cole dies.
Notice how each trip to the past has its own self-contained conflict, climax, and resolution. This is because they’re self-contained chapters that together converge in the film’s finale. Each chapter is a plot all on its own. This is called an “episodic plot structure”.
But despite being somewhat self-contained, each chapter is still connected to one another in the way that they’re each the cause of the one before them, forming a consistent linear timeline that, since this is a casual loop film, loops back around again. It’s a pre-established chain that cannot be broken regardless of the actions of the characters. Cole says so himself when he explains to the doctor why he can’t simply change the future. He understands that time is predetermined, and this is an important theme in Twelve Monkeys. This is called “the predestination paradox”. Cole goes back in time because of a plague, but the plague only happens because he goes back in time. It’s the same thing that happens with The Terminator (1984) and, from a certain point of view, the classical Greek play Oedipus Rex (429 BC).
Twelve Monkeys is a film that has had a large impact the genre of science fiction. And although its twist no longer lives up to the shock value standards of modern audiences, its talented cast and solid plot live up to the cultural influence that it’s known for. It’s a film that is not only meant to be digested visually, but mentally as well. The questions it asks and the concepts that it posits are ones that pop culture enthusiasts like myself will continue to dissect for years to come.